The Spiritual Practice of Beauty

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- Brad Nelson | Photos by Jesse Morrow

A number of years ago I was scheduled to help facilitate a wilderness trip for some men in our church. After agreeing to help, I forgot about the weekend and got lost in the busyness of life. A little too lost in fact. Life is hectic enough, but sometimes we hit stretches that require so much energy and focus and that thrust us into such ambiguity and complexity that the line between the chaos of things around us and the chaos of things within us gets very blurry. This is especially true if you are someone like me who has a nasty habit of getting sucked into the lie that I am what I accomplish. Or worse yet, that I am what I fail to accomplish. In any case, I had gotten lost in the busyness of my life in every possible sense.

Then came the weekend of the trip. It seemed my life was an account that had been overdrawn one too many times. I had nothing left to give. No questions to offer. No insights to share. Not even the energy to listen let alone care. The last thing I wanted to do was trudge out into the woods with a bunch of guys John Eldredge style and listen to the ways in which they’d been broken and needed healing. In fact, I tried to weasel out of it. No luck. They really needed a facilitator.

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But when we rolled up into the Canadian wilderness something happened I hadn’t foreseen: The sheer beauty of the place began to piece back together the fragmented parts of what had become my self. It was exactly the opposite of what I’d expected would happen. Ever since that trip, I’ve experienced this phenomenon again and again. Life wears me down. I forget who I am. Then I’m exposed to beauty and something shifts inside me. I remember who I am. I remember that I’ve been here before and that God was here with me the last time even though it didn’t feel like it.

This may not be true for everyone, but I have a hunch it’s true for many: experiencing beauty does something to restore the soul. Regular exposure to beauty makes us feel alive, and I think it does so in part because beauty is what we were made for, and that “beneath the broken surface of our lives,” as Thomas Merton would say, beauty is a reflection of who we are and what the world is. I know no better word to describe what I sense in moments of beauty than the word wholeness.

What if we began to think of beauty as a spiritual practice, regularly exposing ourselves to those things that strike us as beautiful? Might we be people more capable of wholeness in a world of fragmentation? But there is more to this practice than just being exposed to beauty and experiencing wholeness for ourselves. If it’s true that beauty is a reflection of our fundamental identity, then that would mean that beneath the broken surface of all things there is beauty waiting to be found, called forth, and enjoyed. Eugene Peterson says it well in his book The Jesus Way. He writes, “Sin, in a sense, has no substance in itself. It can exist only as a perversion or distortion of the good, the true, the beautiful, which it is its genius to defile.” Beauty as a spiritual practice moves us beyond personal inspiration (Is there such a thing?) or wholeness. It launches us back into the unlovely, the distorted with a renewed capacity to call forth the hidden loveliness of all things.

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In the First Century, a group of people called the Essenes believed that the world was so corrupt that the only thing left to do was escape it and live in seclusion, focusing on their own spiritual purity. They called themselves the “sons of light” and considered contact with “the sons of darkness” as polluting their own purity. It may well be that Jesus had the Essenes in mind when he taught, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words, the movement of light is to invade the darkness.

The is a picture of the ruins of the temple to the fertility goddess Cybele in the ancient city of Sardis (present day Turkey). Worship in the cult of fertility gods and goddesses was often scandalous, involving temple prostitution and the ritual castration of male priests who would offer their own source of fertility to the goddess as an act of devotion. This was a dark, dark place. This was the sort of place you’d expect early followers of Jesus to protest, but I’m told that the small building near the pillars is actually one of the oldest Christian churches ever to be found in Asia.

I don’t know what those Christians did there, but I’d like to believe that they were intentionally setting up camp in one of the darkest places in their neighborhood in order to be a presence of light. That their experience of wholeness sent them in search of the most fragmented peoples, places and issues in order to call forth the “hidden wholeness” of all things.

I don’t always believe it, but in my better moments, I do believe that there is no such thing as a God-forsaken place. The spiritual practice of beauty helps me believe that.

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What does it look like to treat beauty as a spiritual practice? First, I think it means asking ourselves what makes us come alive and feel whole? What do we find beautiful? Obviously being in the woods doesn’t do it for everyone. For some it may be a great meal, or a great band, or a great conversation. Ultimately, it means being able to name what we experience as beautiful so that we can intentionally expose ourselves to those things on a consistent basis. And secondly, I think it means asking how those experiences of beauty are connected to the people, places and things in our lives that feel unlovely and dark. Are we able to identify the ways in which the unlovely things are really only twisted representations of the beauty that is their true essence? Can our experience of beauty cause us to be a presence that reveals the hidden wholeness that I believe is the groaning of all creation? God I hope so.

*For another take on the same idea, check out NT Wright’s article The Bible & Christian Imagination.

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Brad Nelson is the director of teaching and worship at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. A speaker, writer, and student at Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara. To see more of Brad's writing check out his websitebleedingoutloud.com or follow him on twitter@bradleyjnelson.

Jesse Morrow is an art director and recording artist in Bellingham, Washington You can see more of Jesse's work at www.worksbyjesse.com and hear his music at www.jessemorrowmusic.com of follow him on twitter @j1310m